Do you remember John Cleese? This video from 1991, which I watched last night instead of writing a post, features him and his thoughts on creativity. Cleese, you may remember is famous for his work with Monty Python, and if you can, watch the whole video. It’s worthwhile not just for his delivery, but also for his practical advice. And after all, who doesn’t want to be a bit more creative?
If you only have 10 minutes, here he is again in 2009 brushing up the theme.
Cleese describes creativity not as talent, but a modus operandi. He distinguishes between two modes of operation.
First, is the closed mode, which is our normal daily attitude, which repesents work, errands, family, friends and social media all of which are simultaneously competing for our attention.
The second is the open mode in which exploration is the main objective and goal. Kids call it playtime, the mode where creativity blossoms. To implement a new idea or concept, both modes are necessary. Once a creative thought or insight occurs the open state has to give way to the closed one to implement the new idea or concept without hesitation or doubt.
To enter the open mode can be difficult. Life usually get in the way.
According to Cleese there are 5 elements to help set the stage for the open mode:
1. Creating space: Make room (physical and mental) to explore. Cleese calls it setting up a space/time oasis.
2. Time (quantitative) : Set aside an hour and half or so with unobstructed time. No phone, no email, no interruptions. There needs to be a clear separation between your daily tasks and “open mode time”. Nobody gets creative in front of a computer.
3. Time (qualitative): Wait for the mind to calm down (which can take up to 30 minutes or longer you may know this from meditation or trying to get to sleep at night) and stop your mind’s chattering, if that’s possible. It can be hard in the beginning, but the mind does get quiet faster over time. Think about something interesting like two juxtaposed concepts and explore how they connect. Ponder until your time is running out. If something occurs, great, if not, don’t worry. Wait or sleep over it.
Good ideas often need time to “incubate” below the threshold of awareness. Cleese also warns off getting get rid of the discomfort of not having an answer/solution right away. He says that the most creative people are prepared to tolerate the discomfort of “not knowing” longer than other people. In other words, don’t grab the first creative idea or insight that comes to mind. Wait on it and even more creative ideas could follow. I thought that this is crucial.
4. Confidence: Don’t let the fear of failure get into the way. Don’t expect anything to happen. Play and experiment without aiming for a result. I find that the hard one. We are all taught to view “play time” as losing, or worse wasting time and are always concerned with setting and reaching goals.
5. Humor: Humor is a fast way to change from the closed mode into the open one.
The lecture is peppered with Cleese’s usual humor and the end memorable when he explains how and why creative people pose a threat to the establishment.
I will take his advice to heart this week and spend less time in front of the computer and more in my own space/time sanctuary.